Meeting Anne Dickson MP CBE: The quintessential ‘grand lady’ of the politics of Northern Ireland

#AnneDickson #WomenInPolitics #NorthernIreland #UlsterUnionism #UlsterUnionistParty #UPNI

Above: Chamindra Weerawardhana meeting Anne Dickson MP CBE, Carrick, Northern Ireland, June 2016 (©C.Weerawardhana)

In June 2016, I had the good fortune of meeting Anne Laetitia Dickson MP CBE, the first woman to lead a political party in Northern Ireland (and the second in the island of Ireland). Starting her career in active politics as the chair of the Carrick Party Executive of the Unionist Party, Anne was elected to the Newtownabbey Urban District Council in 1965, and to Stormont at the infamous 1969 Crossroads election, polling 9,529 preferential votes. Anne was the only woman to be elected to the last Stormont parliament before Direct Rule was declared in 1972 (from 1969 to 1972). At the Carrick Executive of the UUP (Anne’s home constituency), she would strongly articulate a discourse of inclusion, often critical of the discriminatory policies of the government run by her own party. Being female and a no-nonsense critical voice, Anne was popular among party members, and her positions were indeed a breath of fresh air to a party with an unmistakably patriarchal and conservative stamp. Despite being appreciated by party members, Anne’s presence in the political scene was anathema to many cis male politicians in the Unionist Party, especially those who upheld a hardline brand of unionism.

Anne is a unique personality in Ulster Unionist politics in the 20th century. Throughout the 1960s, she tirelessly campaigned in her home constituency of Carrick against discrimination on the basis of political affiliation and religious faith. She fearlessly stood for the rights of the Irish Nationalist/Catholic community, and was especially critical of discrimination in employment and housing. Anne’s contributions to the politics of Northern Ireland strongly reflect a salient feature of the women’s movement of Ireland as a whole. It is a movement that has always been composed of women from all political and religious backgrounds, and as of late, of different nationalities, ethnic origins and gender identities. This is a salient reality one can observe, for example, in reproductive justice activism throughout Ireland, which brings together cis women, trans women, trans men, cis men, non-binary people and other gender-plural people from different political backgrounds and affiliations.

Anne’s progressive views and activism enabled her to develop friendships and links beyond the strict confines of the Unionist Party, and be part of broader campaigns for equality and justice. This, in the context of the rapid deterioration of the political and security situation in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was not in Anne’s favour, and she earned the wrath not only of the fast-growing Paisleyites, but also from hardline and inherently patriarchal elements within her own party itself. On 15 August 1970, her residence (where she still resides) was pipe-bombed. Months before in February 1970, the South Belfast residence of Sheelagh Murnaghan MP OBE (1927–1993), the first practising female barrister in the Belfast bar and the only MP of the Ulster Liberal Party in the old (i.e. pre-1972) Stormont parliament (from 1961 to 1969, representing the Queen’s University constituency), was also pipe-bombed — in a series of attacks attributed to the UVF.

Anne eventually resigned from the Unionist Party in 1972, and in 1973, successfully stood for the Assembly Election in South Antrim as an independent Unionist candidate, and also retained the same seat at the 1975 Constitutional Convention election. As Northern Ireland drifted into the abyss of violence day after day, Anne was active in working towards strengthening the now fast declining political centre-ground. Anne worked closely with Brian Faulkner, and together they created a new political party which they named the Unionist Party of Northern Ireland (UPNI). Upon Faulkner’s retirement from active politics in 1976, Anne took over, becoming the very first woman to lead a political party in Northern Ireland. She held the UPNI leadership until the party was dissolved in 1981. In the 1980s, Anne continued her role in public life as the chairperson of the General Consumer Council of Northern Ireland.

An absolute role-model for today’s politicians and activists?

Above: victorious! Anne Dickson MP arriving at the Stormont Parliament Building, 1969 (©Victor Patterson photography).

Throughout her political career in Northern Ireland, Anne was brought to deal with major challenges from the patriarchal and discriminatory attitudes within her own political fold. In the face of tremendous pressure, her resilience, and resolve to continue were simply exemplary. Her opponents within unionism tried hard to put an end to the political career of this hard-working, committed and popular politician through tactics of intimidation and fear-mongering, especially as political tensions were taking unprecedented turns in the late 1960s. No such threats, a pipe bomb attack at her residence, verbal abuse and the blatant misogyny of a very patriarchal political establishment could stop Anne. She had a vision for an equitable Northern Ireland, and would never agree to compromise her principles.

Now in her late eighties, Anne’s political positions continue to be as sharp as they were in the 1960s, although “age has taken its toll”, to quote her own words when I expressed my utmost pleasure of meeting her in person, accompanied by my two young children. Anne’s vision for reconciliation and bringing people together, and her spirit of cosmopolitanism, remain intact. I met her the day after the EU referendum. Anne’s position (that of one of the most, if not the most senior ‘Unionist’ politician alive) was very clear: “The United Kingdom should stay in the European Union. To some people, the world ends at the end of the street they live in”.

In her eventful political career, Anne has witnessed some of the most decisive turning points in the politics of 20th century Northern Ireland. Speaking at the Stormont House of Commons on 28 March 1972 during the very last debate before direct rule was declared, Anne’s concluding words proved to be prophetic: “…it may well be that when this House adjourns today it will be for the last time as a real Parliament” (Hansard 28/03/1972, col.1571).

This note, however, is not written in a eulogising spirit. Despite her fearless advocacy against discrimination, I would not describe Anne as a radical voice. In the aftermath of the violent incidents in Derry/Londonderry in late January 1972, for instance, Anne firmly took the side of the British security forces, categorically condemning Irish nationalist activists (Hansard, 01/02/1972, columns 23, 24, 25. A similar trend, in which Anne expresses very little concern about nationalist/republican/Catholic grievances, can be found in the Hansard of 14 August 1969, columns 2269, 2270). She was committed to the [Unionist] establishment, yet challenged the patriarchal majoritarian politics of her own fold in her own nuanced way. Having received a rather conservative education and representing an equally conservative Unionist political party, it is not surprising that Anne stood with her party colleagues unanimously in the face of the deteriorating security situation of the early 1970s.

Nonetheless, Anne’s work does carry a level of significance to today’s politics. Anne sets a shining example to all gender and social justice activists of today from all sides of the sectarian divide. Despite the presence of complex power-sharing mechanism, it is quite rare for politicians representing one ‘sectarian’ party to express concern over people on the opposite side of the sectarian divide. When they do so (such as the ‘marketers’ of the Northern Ireland peace process abroad, who are ‘orange’ and ‘green’, and who have developed their own well-connected front organisations to gallivant around the world with all expenses paid), their choice of that path is most often motivated by political and financial profit. What is unique about Anne was that she spoke up against discriminatory practices against the Nationalist/Catholic community without expecting a penny in return, taking steps to personally assist people, in a spirit of selfless commitment to the community. This, if anything, is reason enough to have a stronger conversation about Anne’s legacy today, especially with children and young people.

The first female party leader in Northern Ireland happened to come from a highly privileged Unionist background, but in politics and public life (and in a manner unusual even in the supposedly ‘progressive’ post-Hillsborough Castle Agreement days we now live in), she unequivocally stood for marginalised people, irrespective of their political positions. From International Women’s Day events to specific events hosted by the province’s two universities and other organisations, there are many platforms in Northern Ireland that discuss gender politics, but in the past ten years, this writer has seen next to know emphasis on Anne’s life and career. Anne’s legacy is one that merits more discussion, not only in gender justice activist and scholar-activist circles in Ulster, but also at national level in the UK and Ireland.

As I left Anne’s charming residence by the sea, I could not help but imagine what it would be like to have a Unionist leader of her calibre at the highest levels of the present-day politics of Northern Ireland.

Further reading:

Rynder, Constance Bess. 2009. ‘A woman at the centre: Anne Dickson and the Troubles’. New Hibernia Review, 13:2, Samhradh 2009.